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The consumerisation of music technology

Posted by Ian McKee on 9th July 2012

iPad music studio‘The consumerisation of IT’ is an established trend, as consumer technology is advancing so swiftly it’s having some interesting affects on enterprise tech. Tablet devices, smartphones, social networks and BYOD are forcing exciting things to happen to business computing and causing a few headaches for IT managers and CIOs.

But IT is not the only industry that these technologies are having an affect.

A year and a half ago, Damon Albarn creating an album on an iPad was seen as gimmicky. It is pretty easy to see a lot of what Damon Albarn gets up to as gimmicky, but I happen to believe that most of his prolific output is in earnest. This is a man who wrote an critically acclaimed opera about a cartoon monkey, after all. So I had a hunch that there may be something in this endeavour beyond a headline.

Some of the negativity came down to one thing.

“Making music on an iPad? It’s too easy.”

It really irks me that there are musicians, or anyone, who thinks that anything to do with music making can be ‘too easy’. The worst kind are generally Dream Theater fans. There can be a certain thrill in witnessing virtuoso musicianship, but music is not a sport, it should not be judged on speed or dexterity or the number of time signature changes you can cram into a 20 minute epic. It should be judged as art, capacity to evoke emotions and thought.

Playing is one thing, but it makes even less sense to think that music production should be hard. Ableton Live is widely praised by music production pros for being user friendly. My own experience is that it is easier to pick up than some other ‘pro’ tools (including Pro Tools). It actually doesn’t do exactly the job I was originally looking for in production software, but I find I come back to just because it’s more intuitive.

It’s still not exactly simple though. I’ve watched many a video tutorial, played around for hours and am still aware I’m only scratching the surface of the software’s capabilities.

The reason these tools are complicated is presumably not because the makers of Reason and Cubase want a high barrier for entry, it’s simply that professionals want a lot of features, and with features come complications. It is a trade off, but to think that a piece of software (or to use the ‘consumerised’ term, an app) being easy to use denigrates the artistry of the musical output somehow seems belligerent.

Uniqueness 

So multitudinousness of features is something that the many music making apps that are coming out have to contend with, and the majority seem to be dealing with it simply by dedicating themselves to one thing. DM1 is a drum machine, it does that job well but does not try to also be your MIDI controller or composer. Sketch Synth lets you play with samples in fun ways, but it’s not about to replace Ableton Live.

For me these apps are contending with a bigger issue. GarageBand is the one iPad app I can think of that tries to do more than one thing. It’s a tool for recording, arranging, playing; the whole music creation process.

Of course GarageBand is the daddy of making music production consumer friendly. But I remember learning that the beat on Rhianna’s Umbrella was a GarageBand loop and thinking ‘well, I’m not going to be using GarageBand then’. Not because I’m not a Rhianna fan (I’m not, but Umbrella is a choon) but because I thought if music media were making a big deal out of this then it’s clearly not the done thing.

And this is where it starts to get complicated. Even on the iPad GarageBand does a pretty great job of giving you ways to create unique sounds, and there is the capacity to import from elsewhere, but ultimately the majority of consumers are always going to go back to the loop library and construct tracks from bits and pieces that either they haven’t made or that the software has auto-generated.

Even when you’re importing from elsewhere, how much unique input do you have to put into something to make it truly original? If you’re importing a drum loop from another app, does it matter that the kick sound is the same as thousands of other people’s kick sound?

This means that to some degree the music is going to be the aural equivalent of buying a shirt from Topshop. Nice and everything, but likely to be the same or similar to what someone else is wearing to the party.

Portability

When I bought my Tascam Porta 02 four track recorder as a teenager I thought ‘this is it, I’m going to be recording music everywhere I go‘. I’m not saying it was false advertising, the Porta 02 was reasonably portable, but the fact you had to plug a microphone or instrument into it to record anything means I wasn’t likely to create a jazz odyssey on the train.

I thought the same when I bought my first MacBook Pro, but somehow save for a couple of three hour train rides to Bristol, it seemed just little bit too much effort.

The iPad, however, seems to be the solution needed. A half hour on the train with a couple of music making apps and I can be well on the way to creating something. Whether it is any good is another question, but something.

Price

An iPad still isn’t cheap (yet), but compare the cost to most musical instruments and it’s reasonable. Especially considering music making is far from the iPad’s sole or primary purpose.

Setting aside hardware, from a software perspective the app ecosystem has had an affect on economic models similar to those in gaming. Just as you can now pay £4.99 for practically the same game you would pay £50 for on a console, you’re unlikely to pay over £5 for a music creation app whilst most pro music software will set you back at least £100. Features be damned, that makes for a good trade off.

Music making converging with music consumption

I have two different folders on both my iPad and iPhone for music listening and music making, but this appears to be an antiquated distinction. In the App Store and Google Play they are one and the same. Which makes sense, as the line is increasingly blurred. Apps like the aforementioned Sketch Synth encourage you to experiment with given sounds, you’re being creative when you use it, but it’s not intended for creation so much as entertainment.

Then there are interesting experiments with this crossover area from mainstream artists, like Bjork’s much hyped Biophilia. An artist’s creation, but one created with the expectation that the listener (user? co-creator?) interacts with the sounds.

There’s no doubt that this trend is exciting, and I’m looking forward to the day when you can create an entire album of original material on a device you can hold in one hand without being called a poser. A certain amount of snobbery needs to disappear from music, and as music creation becomes easier there will be more music, which inevitably means more bad music. But this just means we need more filters in order to get more brilliant music.

(Grand Sounds 53/366 by ErminCelikovic)

Ian McKee

Ian started out his career working in travel PR, working for tourist boards, airlines and hotel groups. Whilst there he carved out a position as a digital communications expert, managing social media, SEO and email marketing campaigns for clients.